The Impact of Trauma on Children

By Doug Van Oort

The Bad News: Researchers have found that “exposure to unrelenting stress and repeated traumas can change a child’s brain, making it…harder to focus and learn.” (Flannery) The Good News: Educators can create trauma-sensitive classrooms where children learn to calm themselves when stressed or experiencing trauma and return to learning. (Flannery)

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can “derail a child’s development and lead to a host of health and social challenges throughout a lifetime.” (ACEs Data) Researchers have found that 56% of Iowa adults had experienced at least one of the eight types of ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) during their childhood and that 14% had experienced four or more! (ACEs Data)

The eight types of ACEs are:

  • Physical abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Substance abuse in the home
  • Family member with mental illness
  • Incarcerated family member
  • Separation/divorce
  • Domestic violence

As the number of ACEs increases, “so does the likelihood of having a wide range of poor outcomes.” (ACEs Data) While still in school, children who’ve experienced trauma score below peers in reading and math, even in homes with adequate income and parental education. They also are twice as likely to demonstrate aggressive behaviors. (Flannery) As they grow older, they’re more likely to adopt risky behaviors (smoking and alcohol or drug abuse), develop health problems (diabetes, heart disease, depression, STDs, early death) (ACEs Data), and become adults who are violent, miss work often, and marry often. (Flannery)

Why is this so? Researchers have found that great stress or trauma activates the brain’s fight, flight, or freeze responses while shutting down areas of the brain where learning occurs. The brain is “fundamentally changed” to adapt for survival. (Flannery) These children struggle “with all areas of language, word retrieval, writing” and memory; the next day after being taught, “it’s like they never were taught.” (Flannery) Being in a “constant, fear-activated state of hyper-awareness” results in a range of responses from being quick to rage, defiance, disrespect, and aggression to appearing like “they’re zoning out” or “shutting down”.

Flannery asks, “So, what’s an educator to do?” As mentioned earlier there’s good news. Research shows that “building caring connections promotes positive experiences for children…and helps those with a history of trauma heal.” (ACEs Data) All children experience stress, but in home and school environments with supportive adult relationships, the effects of stress are softened and brought back down to normal more easily, which also helps them “develop a healthy response to stress.” (ACEs Data)

Suggestions for educators from the experts:

  • Don’t punish a child for symptoms of a real medical issue (trauma and stress disorders can be found in the DSM-V). (Flannery)
    • In particular, out-of-school suspensions should be avoided as they “likely feed the school-to-prison pipeline.” (Flannery)
    • It can be more traumatizing for kids to be picked up from school by parents when suspended. Instead, teach them to “pull themselves together and get back to learning.” One principal stated, “These kids’ best hope is to get a good education, so we want them in the classroom, and we want them to trust us.” (Bernstein)
  • Create a trauma-sensitive classroom where kids can feel safe and build resilience.
    • Greet and take time with each student at the start of each day before “diving into tasks” or learning.
    • Offer a “comfort zone” where kids can take a break and calm down, such as a beanbag chair. (Flannery)
    • Give options from which students can choose when they begin having troubles, such as putting on headphones to listen to classical music, going to a break area, or going for a walk. (Bernstein)
  • Keep a neat and uncluttered classroom. Mess and disorganization can be overwhelming and contribute to stress. (Flannery)
  • Paint or decorate walls with cool colors. (Flannery)
  • Have predictable classroom routines with advance warnings of changes (Flannery) and reduce the number of transitions. According to Chris Blodgett, clinical psychologist, change means danger for traumatized kids. (Bernstein)
  • Ask students to repeat verbal instructions. (Flannery)
  • Use written instructions and visual prompts as much as possible. (Flannery)
  • Give short movement breaks every 30 minutes. (Flannery)
  • Educate everyone in the school community – teachers, paraeducators, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, playground monitors – on the effects of trauma and the importance of staying away from “reflexive discipline” and helping kids learn to calm themselves. “You can have a great trauma-sensitive classroom,” says Susan Cole, Trauma and Learning Policy Institute Director, “but if the child goes into the hall or cafeteria and gets yelled at, he can get re-triggered.” (Bornstein)

ACES Data in Iowa. (2015). Beyond ACES: Building hope and resiliency in Iowa. http://www.iowaaces360.org/uploads/1/0/9/2/10925571/aces_execsummary2016_snglpgs.pdf Bornstein, D. (2013). Schools that separate the child from the trauma. Fixes on Facebook: New York Times. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/13/separating-the-child-from-the-trauma/ Flannery, M.E. (2016). How trauma is changing children’s brains. National Education Association (NEA). Education policy: School climate. http://neatoday.org/2016/05/17/trauma-and-children/

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